Intelligence is classically defined as “the ability to acquire and utilize knowledge.” In testing circumstances, an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) is gauged by one’s ability to utilize information gained historically.
Creativity is the ability to come up with new ideas through a mental process of connecting existing concepts. The ideas don’t have to be revolutionary (which is a common misconception many people have about creative thinking), they just have to be new for the thinker.
Intelligence certainly plays a part in creative thinking, but not how you might expect.
Your IQ is generally gauged by an ability to interpret information and provide solutions, no matter the circumstance. In mathematics and basic sciences IQ is immensely important, because it demonstrates your ability to memorize concepts and repeat their results on similar problems. If I tell you that two plus two equals four, you should (ideally) be able to intelligently conclude that four plus four equals twice the original answer.
This fact alone demonstrates intelligence’s relation to creativity, one that is vital for not only understanding creative thinking, but for improving it.
Another important aspect of intelligence is the ability to filter solutions efficiently.
If you’re great at acquiring knowledge (say, through reading or lectures or watching videos on YouTube) and you have the ability to put that knowledge to use effectively, but lack the ability to efficiently filter through solutions, you may come up with effective ideas, but it’s going to take you a long time. As opposed to those with high intelligence levels who can filter through ideas quickly.
Of course – and this is the real kicker – intelligence only gets you so far when it comes to creativity.
To be creative is to pull existing knowledge into a new situation and quickly sort through potential outcomes. Of course: existing knowledge is something that anyone above a certain threshold on the IQ scale can amass. That intelligence number, it seems, is right around 100 (right in the middle of the average range for IQ test-takers in the United States). If you’re reading this, you have the creative potential of anyone with an IQ of 100 or above.
Being able to come up with creative ideas isn’t something you need an overly-high IQ to accomplish. Once you’ve got a level of knowledge gathering and utilization that’s about average, you’re well on your way to having the creative potential of Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs even stated this himself while he was alive by saying;
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
So intelligence matters, it demonstrates your ability to gather knowledge and effectively use it. Creativity is the ability to go beyond the intelligence frame and capitalize on seemingly random connections of concepts.
In conclusion: expert creatives don’t need to be more intelligent than the average person. They simple do three things more diligently than anyone else: they have more experiences, they think on their experiences more often, and when they start pursuing potential outcomes to problems or projects they simply work more with the ideas they come up with (whereas everyone else gives up after evaluating just one or two possible ideas, or by letting their inner critic prevent them from exploring more).
Photo by Steve Jurvetson.